Two years ago, when bone broths had 15 minutes of culinary fame in New York City, certain killjoys (this author included) responded huffily. Salubrious soups made from long-simmered pork or beef bones were parts of longstanding Korean, Greek, Chinese and Caribbean traditions, we sniffed. How could an antiquity be trending?
Such protests were soon drowned by seas of inventive cooks putting modern spins on the concept. They sourced bones from sustainably farmed livestock, spiked elixirs with grass-fed bone marrow, and thus reinvigorated the category.
Halva, a 3,000-year-old Middle Eastern confection, is the latest ancient delicacy to inspire contemporary American chefs and makers. Popular among Levantine, Mediterranean and North African communities for millennia, halva is a versatile, shelf-stable dessert traditionally made from sesame seeds and sugar. Like the nougat in torrone, it’s an excellent foil for nuts, chocolate and dried fruit. Its closest American relation might be fudge, but halva has a light, airy consistency, making it well suited to crumbling within pastry dough or atop ice cream.
Now, the venerable sweet is headlining hip food businesses and appearing on restaurant menus nationwide. The most famous of the former is Seed + Mill, a tahini and halva purveyor that launched a retail counter in New York City’s iconic food hall, Chelsea Market, last year.
“We like to say halva is the new kale,” says Seed + Mill co-owner Rachel Simons, citing its cultural ascendance and health benefits. While sesame seeds are not as nutritionally robust as leafy greens, they contain protein, iron and significant amounts of copper. Halva is a gluten- and dairy-free dessert.
Seed + Mill uses Ethiopian sesame seeds, which Simons says have higher oil content than many domestic varieties. The company’s range of halva cakes spans traditional flavors like pistachio and dates, as well as such contemporary options as lemongrass, goji berry and chia seed.
“Our goal is to take halva from being a niche product to something that modern Americans who might not have any religious or historic connections to it can embrace,” Simons explains. Seed + Mill recently launched retail pushcarts at three Whole Foods in New York and New Jersey. The company also ships its products nationwide.
Ron Sahadi, partner and co-owner of a 69-year-old eponymous Middle Eastern market in Brooklyn, has noticed an uptick in halva sales over the past two years, especially among professional cooks.
“We see the local chefs come in wearing their chef whites,” Sahadi says. “They buy halva from us, and use it as an ingredient in their desserts. In the Middle East, [halva is] always eaten as a dessert alone, but our local chefs in Brooklyn have blended it into ice cream, used it as a cake or pastry filling, or as an ingredient in cookies. People who have never eaten halva before are now exposed to it in different ways.”
New Yorkers can sample halva creme brulee at Einat Admony’s Bar Bolonat, halva ice cream sundaes at the award-winning Russ & Daughters Cafe, and halva doughnuts at Underwest Donuts. Halva-topped grapefruit givré is among the most popular desserts at Daniel Boulud’s Mediterranean-accented Boulud Sud, and recently appeared on the menu of its London pop-up location.
Halva’s proliferation extends beyond coastal metropolises. At Henrietta Red, a buzzy new restaurant in Nashville’s Germantown, benne seed halva is served with banana bread, date sauce and bruleed bananas. Alon Shaya serves babka with halva ice cream at his eponymous New Orleans restaurant. A few miles up the Mississippi, French Quarter steakhouse Doris Metropolitan offers a halva cream parfait. Nora Antene, pastry chef of new Portland, Ore. restaurant Tusk, recently introduced halva soft-serve ice cream. It’s whirled into a Dairy Queen-inspired parfait with hot fudge and poppyseed graham crackers, and dolloped onto iced chai tea.
Halva may be getting its just desserts, but it’s not just an after-dinner affair. Houston institution Kenny & Ziggy’s uses crumbled halva in the breading of its chicken schnitzel. Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a Houston-based fleet of Middle Eastern markets, serves a Choco-Halva-Latte comprised of halva-infused espresso, dark chocolate sauce and steamed milk. At $4 for a large, Phoenicia’s lattes are less than half the price of the vegan Halva Shake at The Punchbowl, an organic Los Angeles juice bar pouring a $10 blend of figs, dates, honey, tahini, banana and almond milk. The cost of dining out in America varies, but you can’t put a price on the past.
Browse the gallery above to see halva variations across America.
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